Canadian Biography: Theory, Practice, Form

Posted April 28, 2009 by Ira B. Nadel

Canadian biography is unusual in that lacks a history as well as a theory. From its uncertain origin to its current practice, Canadian biography has suffered from an absence of both an historical tradition and theoretical foundation. Readers have had little idea of its evolution and an incomplete sense of its form. Only scattered essays in reference books, critical collections or literary guides have attempted to unite the genre, while comparisons of Canadian biography in French and English have rarely occurred.

Our inability to answer a series of basic questions underscores the genre’s neglect. When, for example, did Canadian biography begin? What was the first Canadian biography? What do we even mean by Canadian biography—is it a work about a Canadian written by a Canadian and published in Canada, or could it be a work about a Canadian written by a non-Canadian and published outside of the country? In 1992, George Woodcock declared that the best biography then written in English Canada concerned a British writer, while the best English biography of a writer considered a Canadian was written by an American.[1] Since then, very little has changed: Canada still lacks a biographical masterwork and an established biographical tradition, although  biographies proliferate yearly.[2] However, only circumscribed answers can be found for the questions asked above, answers located in disparate, often summary accounts such as Clara Thomas’s “Biography” in theLiterary History of Canada (1976), Laurent Mailhot’s “Entre l’histoire et la critique: la biographie québécoise” from 100 Years of Critical Solitudes (1992), Chapter 1 of Robert Lanning’s The National Album, Collective Biography and The Formation of the Canadian Middle Class (1996) and  Lucie Robert’s “Quand la vie est littérature. Parcours de la biographie depuis 1840” in Approches de la Biographie au Québec (2004). My own efforts—”Canadian Biography and Literary Form” inEssays on Canadian Writing (1986) and my entry, “Biography,” for the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada ed. W.H. New (2002)—were only tentative first steps that framed my biographical treatment of Leonard Cohen (1996).

Although Canadian biography is theoretically underinformed and literarily understudied, there is still the need to analyze its practice. But also its differences as they exist in French and English Canada. In brief, after the initial and inherited treatment of religious lives and the need for mythmaking in new France and Upper Canada, the Francophone approach concentrated on form, the Anglophone on fact. Both sought interpretation but in different ways. Comprehensiveness was a common goal but the francophone method emphasized analysis, as well as the record. Anglophone works, with few exceptions, dealt more extensively with events and more readily accepted fact. Such works reflected a fundamentally conservative treatment of the genre, one which privileged detail over argument. The emphasis was on documentation and sources. Theoretically, the two traditions diverged, the francophone constantly exploring the literary origins of biographical form and comfortable with its foundation in narrative and language. The Anglophone, by contrast, was uncomfortable with the idea of experimentation or innovation and confident only with history. These differences have implications for the reception and ethics of Canadian biography.

Nevertheless, the emergence of French and English biography in Canada share a similar past, defined by four stages. Beginning as an imported if not imposed genre, one that possessed immediate cultural and political consequences for how early Canadian biography was written and read, biography soon became altered to biographical sketches in dictionary form. It then found a footing in the historical treatment of public figures  prior to approaching biographical narrative as a literary form. In more detail, the four stages are:

Stage I. An imposed form originating in religious lives about Canadian subjects written by Europeans. One could legitimately claim that Canadians did not invent Canadian biography, the genre likely beginning with Pierre Charlevoix’s La vie de la Mere Marie de l’Incarnation (Paris 1724), the first biography of New France, followed by other, hagiographic lives often written by Jesuits. But accounts of less upright lives soon competed, forming a counter discourse. One of the earliest in English Canada was Walter Bate’s account of the criminal Henry Moon. Variously titled The Mysterious Stranger or Companion for Caraboo: a narrative of the conduct and adventures of Henry Moon, it appeared in London in 1817. Moon was a British confidence man arrested, after a string of crimes, in Nova Scotia. These two lives, one pious, the other not, established early markers for Canadian biography.

The first Canadian biographies aimed at mythmaking, choosing subjects whose lives seemed to be larger-than-life yet in some fashion contributed to the shaping of the country. To no one’s surprise, these were often religious figures, explorers or on occasion criminals. Fully realized private lives had little appeal on their own – hence, Stage II of Canadian biography, collective lives.

Stage II. Beginning in the early 19th century and continuing to our own time are collective biographies and  biographical dictionaries which dominated 19th century biographical expression. Canadians love them—short sketches of important figures without too much detail and virtually no interpretation—possibly a reflection of a Canadian reluctance to promote individual heroes. Some representative titles are:

  • Dictionnaire historique des hommes illustres du Canada et de l’Amerique, 1854.
  • Sketches of Celebrated Canadians, 1862.
  • Canadian Notabilities, 1880.
  • A Cyclopedia of Canadian Biography, 1886-88.
  • The Canadian Album: Men of Canada, or Success by Example, 1895.
  • Types of Canadian Women, 1903.
  • An Encyclopedia of Canadian Biography,1904-1907.
  • Heroines of Canada, 1909.
  • Canadian Who’s Who, 1910 –
  • Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1966 –
  • Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1978 .

Stage III – Historical biography mixing public accomplishment with historical events. Mid-19thcentury biography gradually turned to individuals of historical or political significance who by definition led public lives. These works are factual but non-interpretative and exclude personality or relationships. The “life-and-times” school might characterize such work with Charles Lindsey’s Life and Times of W.L. Mackenzie (1862) a representative example. The confluence of history and biography occurs vividly in The History of Canada through Biography (1929).

Stage IV – This is the slow struggle to write interpretive biography where analysis is at least parallel to, although occasionally secondary to, fact. Examples include Hugh MacLennan (1981) by Elspeth Cameron, Charlotte Gray on Pauline Johnson (2002) and Christine Wiesenthal’s account of the murdered British Columbia poet, Pat Lowther (2005). Here, the goal is the replacement of historical fact with narrative truth: not just the facts but the facts in relation to each other. This is almost inevitable since biography ultimately relies on literary rather than historical methods. But for anglophone biography, narrative form, figurative language and even imaginative connections have been secondary at best, distrusted at worst. More favored is a linear, historical presentation of the life determined by an attachment to fact. Such biographies have also been suspicious of style. If a book is too well written, it must clearly misrepresent the facts.

To date, there has been little research on biography in either French or English Canada, autobiography receiving most of the attention over the last two decades. Other than occasional magazine pieces—see Francine Bordeleau’s “Biographie: le retour du sujet-roi” in Lettres Québécoise (2002)—there has been almost no analysis of the evolving nature and wide readership of the genre. The only volume devoted to biography in Québec, for example, did not appear until 2004: Approches de la Biographie au Québec, a collection of nine essays with contributions by Dominique Lafon and others.  No similar volume exists in English.

But how does one measure the cultural impact of biography in the two cultures? Literary prizes in both French and English Canada are a quick guide. Examining what biographies have been nominated and possibly won will reveal the reception and importance of the genre beginning with Governor General winners in both French and English. A comparison of francophone and anglophone biographies of the same person would also exemplify differences in the two approaches, as well as address the question, who gets written about and why? But the differences between the two practices should be celebrated rather than criticized. From two separate traditions, a new and richer definition of Canadian biography is possible.



[1] Phyllis Grosskurth’s  John Addington Symonds  was the first work, Douglas Day’s  Malcolm Lowry: A Biography, the second.

[2]  For an analogy to the absence of a tradition of portrait painting in Canada – other than group portraits – see my “Canadian Biography and Literary Form,”  Essays on Canadian Writing  33 (1986): 148-49.